June 6, 2007
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Lee Davenport '37
Physicist a leader in the electronics age
The Lee Davenport '37 Summer Research Fund is awarded annually to students in engineering, chemistry, biology, physics or geology who work closely with a faculty mentor on summer research. Davenport recently shared his Union reminiscences, including stories about his own inspiring faculty connections.
In 1934, Lee Davenport was removing insects from plants for 35 cents an hour when Physics Chairman Peter Wold made him an enticing offer.
"He invited me to help make scientific drawings. I'd never done anything like it before, but he said, 'It's better than picking bugs off salvias.'"
It was the beginning of an unforgettable relationship - one that helped lay the groundwork for Davenport's successful career as a physicist and leader in the development of advanced communications technology.
"Peter Wold was a remarkable man," Davenport said. "He was one of the kindest people I've ever met, and very inspirational."
For Davenport, one of two students in the Class of 1937 who became physicists (Howard Moncton was the other), living and learning at Union meant taking advantage of opportunities galore. "I did things I never dreamed I could do. We were allowed to develop our own challenges, in the labs, with professors, at General Electric," he said.
One of the greatest scientific developments of the day was the generation of high voltage electricity to help smash atoms, and Davenport set out to build a high-voltage generator known as a Van de Graaff machine. "I went down to GE and said, 'I need a ball made of two-and-a quarter square inches of aluminum, three feet in diameter," he recounted. "I made all the pieces in the Physics lab. Talk about being stretched. Peter Wold could have said, 'You're a little crazy to build a Van de Graaff.' But he didn't. He said, 'Go to it.'"
A Schenectady native, Davenport, who turned 91 on New Year's Eve, recalled his Union days while in town for the inauguration of Stephen Ainlay as 18th College president. It was the fourth time he participated in the swearing in of a new Union president.
"It's hard to be a film star," he joked while sitting in an armchair in Abbe Hall, surrounded by decades of Union memorabilia, as a video crew recorded the historic event. With his platinum hair, red tie and blue-gray suit, Davenport was a picture of dignity.
Union was the first choice for the young Mont Pleasant High student. His father (Harry L. Davenport '13), a Schenectady school teacher, and grandfather (Frank E. Davenport, Class of 1880), went to Union, as did a grand-uncle (Charles P. Sanders, Class of 1878).
On campus, Davenport joined the scientific research society Sigma Xi and the Radio Club. He enjoyed classes with John March and Ernest Ligon, professors of Philosophy. And he forged lifelong friendships with classmates Alan Van Wert and Ed Moulton, with whom he sang in the Glee Club under Prof. Elmer Tidmarsh ("a jewel").
Davenport holds an M.S. and Ph.D. in physics from the University of Pittsburgh. The Ph.D. is for work he conducted at the top secret MIT Radiation Laboratory during World War II, developing revolutionary fire control radar known as microwave radar. SCR-584 (Signal Corp Radio #584) was the most advanced battlefield radar system at the time. It was Peter Wold who helped make possible the unique degree arrangement between the two schools.
Davenport taught at MIT and at Harvard, where he was responsible for the nuclear lab and a 92-inch cyclotron that was the second largest atom smasher in the world at the time.
He spent 24 years with the GTE Corporation and various subsidiaries, retiring as vice president and chief scientist. In 1963, he appeared on the television show "I've Got a Secret" with GTE's plan to transmit TV pictures via lasers. Under Davenport, GTE patented the bright red phosphor now ubiquitous in television displays.
He was elected to the National Academy of Engineering in 1973. Davenport lives in Greenwich, Conn. He has two daughters from his marriage to the late Anne Stephenson. Since his retirement, he has worked as a communications and advanced technology consultant, but he's nurtured his non-scientific side, as well, restoring vintage cars and caravanning in road rallies through his 80s.
A member of the Union Terrace Council, former ReUnion Leadership Gifts Committee and former Term Trustee (1968 to 1985), Davenport became a Life Trustee in 1985 and Trustee Emeritus in 1988.
"Part of our job as Trustees and alumni is to see to it that people believe in this place," he said. "This is a marvelous institution, and it has every opportunity to continue to grow in reputation and prestige."
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Anthony C. LaVecchia '98